Jim Dunn believes God told him to go live outside First Congregational Church, so he took his dog and set up a makeshift tent on the front yard.
That was 13 months ago. At first he was welcome, but his lengthy stay and the arrival of a few rats have made church members reconsider their generosity.
Asking God for guidance, they will vote at their annual meeting today on whether to oust him from church property.
Dunn has spent his days sitting on an overturned bucket under a tree outside the church since April 1995, when Springfield Baptist Church asked him to leave its property. His only companion is a 9-year-old collie, Kay, who ignores the occasional 6-inch rat scurrying nearby.
“I’m not living my will, I’m living God’s will,” said Dunn, 53.
He has no visible means of support and won’t divulge any details about his past. The Akron Beacon Journal quoted relatives, who it would not identify, as saying the family was aware of his living conditions but would not discuss his background.
“People have been trying to help him,” a sister who lives in Cuyahoga Falls told the newspaper. “This is his choice.”
He was never a member of First Congregational and doesn’t attend its services. He was, however, a member for several years at Springfield Baptist, said the Rev. Ted Hixson, that church’s pastor, and was given a key to use the church refrigerator and bathroom until he was asked to leave.
He won’t go to a shelter two blocks away from First Congregational. He doesn’t shower, but uses restrooms in nearby service stations in the commercial area close to downtown and the University of Akron campus.
Church officials are concerned that the 775-member congregation’s 13-month acceptance of Dunn could be overshadowed by any decision to evict him.
“This is a lose-lose situation,” the Rev. Bob Mollard, administrative minister for the church, said of today’s vote. “If God called Jim to live in our front yard, who are we to say God didn’t.”
Neighbors, members of the congregation and passers-by offer Dunn food and money, and sometimes one of the estimated 26,000 commuters who pass each day will honk in greeting.
“God wants me here,” he said. “How can I be obedient if God tells me to stay if I go?” Dunn’s cardboard home is held together by silvery duct tape. He wears a brown and white beard down to his chest, shoulder-length hair and patched pants.
He sleeps in a soiled sleeping bag; he was given a newer one but said it wasn’t God’s will. He has rejected gifts of food if the donor didn’t specify that it came in response to God, Mollard said.
When Dunn talks to church members he “gets pretty antagonistic,” said church member Arthur Wallach. “He says we have no right to talk to him about the piece of ground, that that ground belongs to God and we can’t change it.”
In the Congregational Church, the members of each church control the ministries, worship and doctrine. All members who have received confirmation can vote at annual meetings.
Wallach says Dunn should follow the itinerant preaching style of Jesus: “It’s time for him to travel and take the Gospel message somewhere else.”